Friday, May 05, 2006

Crime and Punishment

In 1981, I was teaching fifth grade at a Navy base in Key West. The news of John Lennon's murder reached me early in the morning, and I arrived at work to find the other teachers discussing the event. I was sad about Lennon's death, and hopeful that I would find other people who were sharing my feelings. Instead, what I heard was anger, and people expressing their wish for the punishment of the murderer. The death penalty would be too good for him, someone said, and there was general agreement, as people expressed their opinions about how much punishment he deserved. I had been sad before, but hearing that conversation I was heart-broken. What kind of way was this to remember John, who had worked for peace and advocated love. It was a moment of supreme alienation for me.

Now Zacarias Moussaoui has been sentenced to life in a super-maximum security prison and Americans of all kinds are expressing their sense of satisfaction that he will be denied martyrdom and instead subjected to a lifetime of harsh conditions, isolation and sensory deprivation. I am disheartened by the sentiments expressed by the people I live and work among.

From my viewpoint, the supermax prison concept might be justifiable if the total population was around 100. The 100 most dangerous criminals alive at any given moment. The unibomber, Charles Manson, people like that. But it's nothing like that. Prison construction and administration is a growth industry, and the United States has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. The supermax prisons are home for thousands of individuals, and many of them are not serving life sentences. That means that one day they will be out in society. The brutal conditions of solitary confinement do not produce people who can successfully rejoin the world and cope with the requirements of civilization.

I would like to see Americans let go of the idea of punishment. To lose one's freedom is punishment enough; it should be viewed as a necessary evil. We need a return to the concept of rehabilitation, education, and training for useful jobs. We need to find a way to allow inmates to remain connected to the social fabric, their families and communities. Humans are social animals. In isolation, we can never be fully human. We require communication, interaction with other people. Maybe what has gone wrong is that Americans have convinced themselves that inmates are not, in fact, people.

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